Disney’s Cinderella: a simple rags-to-riches romance that has influenced decades of young girls and women to dream of their own “happily ever after” complete with Prince Charming. The “sweetest story ever told” seems to perpetuate the idea that salvation from life’s hardships comes through marriage and that finding “Mr. (or Mrs.) Right” transforms one from ordinary to extraordinary. However, considering the movie again, Cinderella actually illustrates a quest for sisterhood and ultimate self-actualization (a sense of oneself as a whole individual). Cinderella’s efforts prove fruitful while her stepmother and stepsisters fail. Cinderella’s recipe for success? Respect, hard work, patient giving, and independence based on a solid sense of self-worth.
The golden storybook opens to reveal young Cinderella smiling in the sun with her devoted father. Her expression proves an innocent sense of security in herself and environment. Upon her father’s unfortunate demise, Cinderella’s stepmother and stepsisters unveil their cruelty, but Cinderella never completely loses faith in herself or situation. Where does her faith and sense of security come from? Surely having once felt unselfish parental love she understands her value as an individual, which thus allows her safety in her own skin. Knowledge of her personal worth enables her to be self-sufficient, independent, and hard working—qualities seen in her willingness to become a servant in her own home.
As dawn paints the sky a soft pink, we enter the grown-up Cinderella’s life as a housekeeper. Her feathered and furry friends wake her gently. Despite their kind intentions, Cinderella playfully flicks and startles a chipper bluebird. Her rebellion to waking up demonstrates her independence and self-respect. Knowing that the rest of her day will be filled with chores and commands, she values herself enough to reserve the early morning hours for her own satisfaction. She allows herself to dream. What does she dream? She refuses to tell. Her dreams are a sacred and untouchable part of her identity of which she has full control. However, if we put the pieces together, we can conclude that her dreams include finding happiness through familial love and the opportunity to reach her true potential as a human being.
While Cinderella’s acceptance of servitude points out a level of strength and independence, it also confirms a desire for familial validation and belonging. Her role as a servant functions as an attempt to cultivate sisterhood within the household. This is evident when Cinderella delivers each woman their breakfast tray and cheerfully greets them by name, acknowledging their unique identities. She, however, is never referred to by name until she is punished for something she did not do. Despite this, Cinderella remains strong. She withstands being bullied with patience and poise and never ceases to give. How does she do this? Even though her patient giving is rejected by her stepfamily, it is reciprocated by the animals she rescues, dresses, and names. She gains inner strength and unshakable grace through both self-knowledge and a separate world of friends and dreams.
Unlike Cinderella, her stepmother and stepsisters have no grace or dignity because they have no sense of self-worth. Instead, their ability to be self-actualized and retain permanent joy depends upon marriage to a powerful and wealthy man. They fail to realize that the power and completeness they think comes with marriage actually requires an individual choice to accept others and, in turn, accept themselves. Feminist scholar Dr. Janice Raymond says that “The invisibility of women to see each other has been the condition of women in a hetero-relational society and affects women’s total loss of sensation for their Selves and other women. Women can choose their line of vision. Women can choose to see each other.”* Cinderella attempts to see her stepsisters while her stepsisters conform to the hetero-relational societal norms and thus give up their ticket to successfully accomplishing their ultimate goal.
Eventually, after her stepsisters tear the gown she intended to wear to the ball, Cinderella tearfully realizes she will never win the acceptance of her stepfamily. At this moment, the culmination of her faith is personified by a Fairy Godmother who transforms her inadequate resources into splendour. She spins in her glittering gown, exclaiming that all of it is “a wonderful dream come true!” Finally, Cinderella gets to be the best version of herself—the self that had been hidden in rags. Her dream of reaching her true potential is fulfilled. She gets to feel beautiful inside and out as well as enjoy who she is and who she’s with in a world outside of dreams.
Of course, we know that she arrives at the ball and immediately falls in love with the prince. However, when the magic wears off at midnight she glows about the evening and expresses gratitude for the one night, not expecting anything more. She doesn’t expect marriage—she doesn’t even know the man she met is the prince! She is completely satisfied. This reveals her self-actualization.
Cinderella’s full sense of self is not completed by marriage to the prince. Rather, another individual’s acknowledgement of her value compliments her self-actualization. Cinderella’s stepmother and stepsisters rejected her and therefore relinquished their own opportunity to become visible and valuable.
Disney’s Cinderella is more than a romance. It is a powerful reminder that celebrating yourself and others in sisterhood (and brotherhood) is key to your own success. When we understand the significance of our own unique individuality (like Cinderella) we have the power to remain poised despite abuse, build healthy relationships, and make our dreams come true!
*Raymond, Janice G. A Passion for Friends (Toward a Philosophy of Female Affection). NorthMelbourne: Beacon Press, 1986.